Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
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Published in 1992, Christopher R. Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland explores the activities of a battalion of German police officers who are, in various ways, involved in the murder of vast numbers of Jews in occupied Poland during World War II. The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 are largely middle-aged men from working- and middle-class backgrounds with little prior experience of military service or Nazi ideology. Too old to be drafted into the army, they are instead drafted into the Order Police. Informed by the postwar testimonies of more than 200 former members of the battalion, the book explores how such “ordinary men” came to be responsible for so many atrocities.
The battalion’s first engagement with mass murder occurs in 1942, when they are sent to the Polish town of Józefów and ordered to round up Jewish men of working age to serve in labor camps and to shoot the women, children, the old, and the sick. The battalion’s commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, is unhappy with the orders and, tears in his eyes, makes the surprising offer that any man who does not feel up to the task can be excused. Only around a dozen men accept this offer, although some more join them once the shooting begins and the full horror of their task becomes clear to them. Whatever their level of engagement, the men are silent and traumatized after the mass murder.
In order to reduce the psychological burden on the men, “extermination camps” are developed, in which the killing can be done at a distance and with less face-to-face engagement with the victims. The men of Battalion 101 are heavily involved in the deportation of thousands of Jews to these camps. Although broadly aware of the fate awaiting their victims, the men are far more comfortable with this work, as the added distance allows them to delude themselves that they are not culpable for the murders.
When deportation trains break down or other obstacles are experienced, the men once again have to confront the harsh reality of mass shootings, although they are spared the majority of the direct shooting, which is performed by Eastern European prisoners-of-war known for their drunkenness and cruelty. A small number of men absolutely refuse to be involved but most continue reluctantly, encouraged by peer pressure and the drive to conform to their comrades’ standards. They gradually become numb to the brutality and even Major Trapp, who had once wept as he gave his orders, seems to find the murders easier to condone. Some take this even further, becoming enthusiastic and engaging in the sadistic torture and humiliation of captive Jews.
Battalion 101 are ordered to engage in operations to kill any Jews who escaped deportations, searching the farms and forests of the region for escapees and partisans in what the men call the “Jew Hunt.” By late 1943, with most Jews dead or captive and the war going badly for Germany, Heinrich Himmler remains committed to the idea of a Poland that is Judenfrei, or free of Jews. To achieve this requires that all of the Jews in the labor camps are murdered and Battalion 101 are once again called upon to serve as security support as tens of thousands of Jews are killed over a few days of terrible violence known as the Ernetefest, or Harvest Festival, massacre.
By the time the war ends, the battalion of fewer than 500 men has been involved in the deaths of 83,000 people. Browning concludes his book by evaluating the forces that made this group of men, who were in many ways incredibly poorly-suited to the task of mass murder, capable of numerous atrocities. He examines various explanations, including obedience to authority, conformity to one’s comrades, anti-Semitic propaganda, and the psychological relief of killing at a distance. He concludes that a complex combination of factors allowed and encouraged the men to complete their tasks, offering the disturbing observation that such violence is not the product of exceptional, evil sadists but of ordinary people.